THE DETECTIVE IS HERE
“What did you say?” Lyfantod was leaning sharply forward across the desk, leading with the nose, his neck stretched out like that of a hound who's spotted game, gripping the polished wooden lip with both hands.
"I said 'welcome,' Mr. Lyfantod. Perhaps you ought to clean inside your ears.” Nothing about the manner of the prim older woman behind the desk was the slightest bit welcoming. Her mouth was a thin line, her brows drawn down into a definite frown beneath the hair permed into a tight grey thundercloud around her head. The look that she was currently giving Lyfantod, if it was not in fact simply a permanent condition of her face, was exactly the sort one reserved for people that they didn't like, and if she could be said to have been pleased about anything at all, it was the fact that at least there was a physical object separating her and the overeager P.I.
“Not that. The other part." Lyfantod leaned, if possible, even further toward her.
She rolled eyes which were the same dark grey as her hair. She knew precisely what he was after and was loath to give it to him. “To Barrows School."
A slow smile spread across Lyfantod's face. “Moira.”
“You will kindly refer to me as Mrs. McMorran. I suppose detectives of your caliber are prone to stating the obvious."
Lyfantod ignored the barb. He was reeling. “But how?” His eyes flicked away from hers to take in the corridor around him. The rays of sunlight shining in the tall windows revealed not a whit of what lay beyond them.
She in turn ignored his question. “You wished to investigate Professor Bones’s classroom. Let’s get that over with and you can be on your way. The sooner the better.” She picked up the glossy black handset of the rotary phone before her, strikingly similar to Lyfantod’s own, and began to dial.
Lyfantod reached out to forestall her, going so far as to rest his hand on top of hers. At look she gave him he gave that up rather quickly, but she did pause. “Please. How did I get here? I was just chasing after… Craig Sturgis. And then I—” He made a gesture with his hand, as of a puff of smoke. Not entirely accurate, but it got the point across. "I thought I'd hit my head."
“The note." Mrs. McMorran held out a stiff, wrinkled hand.
Lyfantod glanced down at his breast pocket. He reached inside and retrieved Flint’s hastily scrawled missive. “How did you…?”
With a moue of distaste, she reached out and plucked the note from his fingers, her movements conveying a deep and abiding exasperation. Lyfantod couldn’t be sure if it were with him in particular or the world in general. She seemed the sort to dislike everything equally.
“The working of it would be well beyond you,” she said without looking at him, giving the note a quick but thorough inspection through the spectacles set low on her nose. The frown lines on her brow only deepened as she confirmed the worst. She refolded the note and thrust it back at him. “Suffice it so say that once you received official permission to investigate on behalf of the Guild—a serious lapse in judgment on their part—we knew about it. After that, your getting here was simply a matter of time.” She shrugged as if to say that this should have been obvious.
“How does all this fit inside that little house? I mean, it’s not as small as some, certainly… Have we been shrunk?”
“Oh, please, Mr. Lyfantod," she grimaced. "Do try to keep your naïvety to a manageable level. Or barring that you might simply refrain from speaking.”
“This really is Barrows School then,” he murmured, mostly to himself. “Do you know how long I’ve been trying to find this place?”
“I have a fair idea,” she said acidly.
“Where is this? Really?”
“There are not many privy to that information. I count my blessings that you are not one of them. You may have been permitted entry. For now. But do not believe for a moment that that means you’ve been given run of the place. Once your investigation has been completed, you will leave here. And if there is any decency left in the world at all, you will not be coming back. You will see what you will see, and have to be satisfied with that.”
So saying, she picked up the receiver once more and dialed a number. A moment passed as she waited with it pressed firmly to her ear. “The detective is here,” she said, and hung up with a heavy click. She gave Lyfantod one final look of disapproval. “You may wait over there.” She gestured to an arbitrary patch of empty space several meters away. “Try not to break anything.”
Lyfantod did as he was told. Mrs. McMorran appeared to forget about him almost immediately, returning to her business, whatever it was, in the shadowy recesses behind her desk. He didn't mind. It gave him time to look around. The mood of the place was gothic, with arches and geometric shapes carved and worked into the stone, but there was something else to it as well. An influence he could not place. And while the scale and the structure put him in mind of a cathedral, there was an air of the mystic about the place, rather than the holy.
The light was a mix of warm and cool, as was the air, which smelled of dust and soot and pine sap. There were torches all about, propped up in iron sconces, their glow mingling with the cool winter sunlight shining in the windows. A heavy silence hung over everything like a blanket, and the only sounds to be heard were the faint crackling of flame and the industrious scratching of Mrs. McMorran's pen.
The corridor, he found, was constructed in the shape of an elongated T. The door which he’d apparently entered through sat at the base, and he observed with a sense of wonder that it was now several times larger than it had been when he came through it.
Mrs. McMorran's desk and the wall behind it—slightly wider than the long corridor—sat at the intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, and Lyfantod was now positioned to see that to either side rose the steps of a tremendous stairway, leading back and up to where Lyfantod could not guess. The air from above was luminous, bathed in effusive rays whose source was blocked from sight.
Lyfantod was attempting to edge surreptitiously to the right in order to get a better look when the distant clip of footsteps on stone faded into hearing. Moments later, Lyfantod craning his neck to peek around the corner, his vigilance was rewarded with the sight of someone coming down the stairs. It was a thin young man with a face that reminded Lyfantod of a fox to a degree only just a hair greater than a face ought to. He'd a pointed nose unkempt auburn hair, and deep purpling shadows under his eyes. Aside from the vulpine, the immediate impression he gave was one of abounding fatigue. He was dressed in the remarkably conventional manner of a college professor, tweed jacket with elbow patches draped over his drooping shoulders like a mantle.
Lyfantod noticed next that his entire left hand, fingernails and all, was a shade of earthy red, right up until it disappeared into his shirt-sleeve. More surprising than his unusual pigmentation, though, was when he held out his right hand and introduced himself. Over the years, Lyfantod come to expect hostility from the Barrows School lot. Perhaps Moira McMorran was the exception rather than the rule.
“You must be Detective Lyfantod. I’m Sorrell Flynn. I’m handling Professor Bones’s course load while he’s missing.” His tone was light and friendly, though tinged with the exhaustion apparent on his face. “I’ll be showing you to his office.”
Lyfantod nodded and smiled, shaking the proffered hand with vigor. “Lyfantod is fine. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Professor Flynn.”
Flynn winced at the title. "I'm not sure I'm properly called Professor just yet..." He glanced sidelong at Mrs. McMorran at her station, who was studiously ignoring the both of them. "It's only since Professor Bones disappeared. I've not yet completed my coursework. You might instead think of me as an extremely senior student. But I was closest to the Professor. I spent the most time with him… They didn't have anyone else."
“What’s your relationship, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Professor Bones is my mentor,” said Flynn with emotion. “He’s what I aspire to be. As an academic and a Humorist. And a good man,” he added. He seemed to genuinely believe it.
“What would happen to you if he never came back?”
Flynn looked extremely troubled at the thought. “I’d get his position, I suppose. At least until they found someone more qualified.” He glanced at his shoes. “I’d do my best of course. I have been. But I’m having a difficult time filling his shoes.”
“I imagine you would be,” Lyfantod agreed, not entirely sure what to say. Considering his own thoughts about the man, Flynn’s obvious admiration for Bones made him uncomfortable. “Shall we ah... be on our way?”
“Of course," Flynn nodded, managing to sound both eager and hesitant at the same time. The stand-in professor turned and led Lyfantod around the corner and up the massive stairway from which he’d come.
“I don’t think she likes me very much,” observed Lyfantod as climbed, nodding backward once he could be sufficiently confident that they were safely out of earshot of the aforementioned she.
Flynn smiled at that. “Try not to let her get under your skin. She takes her job as gatekeeper a little too seriously.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
“All bark and no bite, though, I assure you. Once you get to know her, she’s really a rather charming woman.”
Lyfantod raised an incredulous eyebrow in response.
At the top of the stairway was another long stone hallway lined with doors on one side, and windows on the other. The doors were unmarked as far as Lyfantod could see. He wondered if one simply memorized where everything was in this place or if they handed out maps. Perhaps he could get ahold of one…
Lyfantod's inquisitive mind wandered in another direction. He glanced at Flynn. “You will likely find this a bit of a stupid question, but what exactly is Humorism?”
"Ah," Flynn brightened, apparently happy for the chance to talk about his chosen field—perhaps just relieved to change the subject. “The essence of Humorism is understanding the four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. They’re all of them substances naturally found in the human body, and imbalances have long been believed to be the cause of all sorts of ailments. They can effect one's personality as well. Manipulated by a skilled hand they are capable some very interesting things. Of course getting the right balance can be a little bit tricky.”
“How does one go about that?”
“Well, the simplest way is through nutrition, honestly. Food and drink. Various elixirs. Professor Bones, for instance, made the most compelling discoveries regarding the consumption of kefir. But that doesn’t always work. In which case we often have to resort to draining, which is where the real fun begins…” He trailed off at the sight of Lyfantod’s expression.
“What’s kefir?” asked Lyfantod somewhat lamely.
“Fermented goat’s milk.”
“I know it sounds rather grisly,” said Flynn defensively, “but it’s really not so different from modern medicine, and in many cases far more effective. It's an ancient art, dating back over two and a half millennia, spanning a huge number of cultures. Of course it’s somewhat fallen by the wayside in recent years.” He looked quite melancholy about that. "Humorists are healers, above all else. It's just that where your modern physicians are entirely focused on solving problems through brute force, we focus on allowing the body to heal itself."
"Mm." Lyfantod nodded vaguely, trying and failing to hide his disappointment. This was a school of magic for God's sake. Of all the subjects they must've had on offer, these men chose to practice outdated medicine? What about Skele-gro? Lay on hands? Cure wounds? From the sound of it, Lyfantod wouldn't have been surprised to find Bones's office full of tanks of leeches. “I’ve heard that yogurt is supposed to be good for your brain,” he offered, before they lapsed into an awkward silence.
Some minutes and more than a few twists, turns, and long corridors later—Lyfantod feeling thoroughly lost—they stopped at the top of a steep and uneven stair, descending into murk. “Are we going underground?”
“Oh, we’re already underground,” Flynn replied casually. “The whole place is. Did you not wonder about the name?”
Barrows School. “Of course. Of course it's underground. Barrow. Like Barrow Wight. I knew it!” He’d not known it, but that was beside the point. Because he'd suspected. More than half of his good theories placed the school somewhere underground, either beneath the city or nearby it. And now that it had been confirmed, he'd have somewhere to start looking when he was trying to find his way back here, assuming that he was kicked out as promised the moment his investigation was over.
Flynn genuinely laughed, momentarily breaking free of the clouds that lowered around him. “There are supposed to be some down here somewhere, but I’ve never seen them.”
Lyfantod gazed at him with eyes wide.
Flynn gave him a small smile and started downward.
“Just a minute." Lyfantod stopped short a few steps in. "We can’t be underground. There’s sunlight. Windows.”
“Ah," Flynn looked back at him, his expression cryptic. “That’s not sunlight.”
At the bottom of the stair they found a long hall that was darker and colder than they had been above, with a lower ceiling and architecture more rough, angular, and crude. The light here came exclusively from torches set in sconces along the wall. There were no windows here.
“Incidentally,” Flynn glanced at Lyfantod as they passed door after unremarkable door, “How did you get involved in Professor Bones’s disappearance? I know you aren't with the Guild.” He tapped his sleeve, indicating the place where a Guildsman's patch would have been.
Lyfantod considered how best to respond. “That is a long story,” he said at length. “To be perfectly honest, the Professor’s disappearance is only tangentially related to my actual case.”
“Oh?” Flynn's expression was puzzled.
“I’m after a Necromancer,” Lyfantod explained. He’d taken five or six steps past the other man before he realized that Flynn had stopped. It was hard to tell in the torchlight, but he looked pale.
“You don’t think…”
Lyfantod held up his hands. “I can't be sure of anything yet. All I know is that Professor Bones’s disappearance coincided with the arrival of undead in the city. And that on the night he went missing, he arranged to meet someone. In a graveyard. At midnight. At a grave that is now conspicuously empty. Whose former occupant is most definitely not entirely dead anymore, if you follow me.”
Flynn turned white enough at that to remove any lingering doubt as to his paleness. “I thought you were here to find out what happened to him.” Flynn shook his head. “I mean, I’ve heard the rumors. I know what everyone says. But… it’s not possible. He wouldn’t. It’s forbidden.”
“Look. So far there isn't any conclusive evidence either way,” lied Lyfantod sympathetically—he was pretty damned sure at this point that Bones was a cold-blooded killer. “I’m here to follow the facts, not to damn your mentor. Perhaps they’ll exonerate him. Perhaps they won’t. Either way, I’m going to see where they lead.” He gave Flynn a hard look. “People are dying out there.”
Flynn swallowed and nodded. “Alright. I'm confident that whatever you find, it will only serve to prove his innocence, so there's no reason to stop you."
“I appreciate that. Shall we?”
“Ah." Flynn nodded toward a door, looking a little embarrassed. “We’re here.”
The door stood few feet beyond the spot where Lyfantod had stopped. It was thick, old wood, no different from many of the others they’d passed along the way. Flynn took a large iron key from his pocket and put it into the lock. “I’ll warn you,” he grimaced. “It’s a bit of a mess.”
Lyfantod only nodded.
The lock tumbled open with a click, and Flynn pushed the door in without entering. He avoided looking inside. “The office I’m set up in is just down the hall,” he pointed. “If you need anything. I’ll leave you to your work.” He paused, biting his lip. “The man and woman from the Guild. Flint, was it? And Monroe. They didn’t seem very optimistic about finding him alive. All the blood, I imagine.” He turned the key in his fingers before handing it to Lyfantod. “I hope you find something they missed.” He nodded once and walked away.
“So do I,” said Lyfantod softly to his retreating back, and then stepped into the office of the missing Professor Bones and shut the door behind him.
The first thing that hit him was the smell. It was horrible. The coppery smell of blood, the sour scent of urine, the gag inducing stench of feces—and a variety of other scents that Lyfantod found himself grateful that he couldn’t readily identify. The source was obvious. To call the place was a mess would have been like calling the ocean damp. It was covered in bodily fluids, and fragments of the clay jars that had contained them lay scattered all over the stone floor. The blood and stool had dried to a coagulated black, and while much of the mess seemed random, some of it was not.
Arcane symbols, inscrutable numbers, and words in languages Lyfantod didn’t know covered the walls and floor, drawn out messily in vital fluid. They might be magic or they might be gibberish. He had no way of knowing. And it would be nearly impossible to determine if anyone’d been killed there. There was no way he could think of to distinguish between blood from an urn or an artery.
Lyfantod fought to control his churning stomach. If Flint and Monroe had been less than thorough in their inspection, he couldn’t really have blamed them. At least by now it had all dried out. They’d have been wading through this mess when it was still fresh.
The the gory scene was almost—but not quite—enough to extinguish his excitement. He was now standing in the office of a Barrows School Professor. A wizard... Or at the very least, a very unconventional doctor. He was here. It was enough, despite the smell, to make him a little giddy. Even if the man had been a Humorist. What other sorts would he find here? He began to wonder at the fact that they hadn’t come across anyone on the way down, professors or students—but he stopped himself. He had work to do.
He began by taking in the room. It was wide, the ceiling was high and pointed, well-lit by a large chandelier, and not at all dungeon-like, though again there were no windows. Despite the grey walls, there were splashes of color that did a good deal to liven it up—though now there was something of an excess of black and red. The sides of the room were taken up mostly by sturdy wooden shelves which were filled all manner of books, unusual looking instruments, and more jars which Lyfantod refrained from opening, thankful that they were opaque. He would just have to hope there were no clues inside any of them.
There was a thick oriental rug—well ruined—and a plush old armchair before a sizable hearth. Wandering over to Bones’s ornately carved desk, he found an open, handwritten agenda with a page torn out—the one that had led the Strawmen to Corstorphine Hill. He flipped through the other pages but found nothing of interest. Mostly, it contained his class schedule.
Lyfantod paced the room, looking for signs of necromancy—not that he particularly knew what they looked like. Quivering skulls, perhaps? His eyes roved for anything that seemed out of place or obviously missing. He skimmed the titles of the books on the wall, of which there were hundreds, tracing a finger along the spines. They all appeared to be related to Bones’s field. A few of the authors Lyfantod had heard of—Hippocrates and Paracelsus. Most he had not. Many had titles like Bilious Balancing, and The Fifth Temperament. Nothing obviously about reanimating corpses or raising armies of undead.
He performed as thorough an examination of the room as he could stomach, peering under furniture and behind, feeling about the desk for hidden compartments, tugging on wall sconces, and looking for anything that might be a disguised button or lever. He tipped up the stiff rug looking for a trapdoor. He pondered the writings on the floor in blood, and took notes and drew diagrams of them in his notebook, though it did nothing to advance his understanding of their portent. Perhaps a visit to the library would help, but that would have to wait.
In one large ornamental cabinet he found crystal vials full of colorful powders and less offensive looking liquids than those covering the walls. In another he found a dinner service with a hunting motif of all things, eager blue hounds bounding across the surface. In the hearth there was a great deal of ash and a sooty iron teapot, but none of the stones seemed loose.
As he’d expected—and privately hoped—there was a conspicuous lack of twentieth-century technology. Something about finding a Dell down here would have been incredibly depressing. It was said that something about magical energy caused modern electronics to malfunction. The fact that Lyfantod himself eschewed anything more complicated than a toaster was something like wishful thinking.
Lyfantod, a little grimy—and trying not to think about with what—had given over to tromping back and forth with his hands behind his back and hoping that something would jump out at him when something did in fact catch his eye—the title of one of the books set high on one of the shelves. It was tall and thin, bound in aging leather, and compared to some of the more luxuriant texts around it, was generally unremarkable. But it set his heart a-thumping, for written in flaking gold copperplate along the spine was:
The Reagent, by Herbert West
The title was unfamiliar, but the author’s name was not. It was a work of fiction—the central figure of a short serial called The Reanimator. About a cold-blooded scientist who discovered a way to return life to the dead. Lyfantod's skin prickled as he approached the shelf. Could his knowledge of mildly obscure American literature be the very thing to break this case? He took in hand the ladder that rested along the wall and slid it over to where he could use it to get the book down from its perch.
He prised it from the books on either side, and then set to sneezing as he dislodged a cloud of dust. Lyfantod was allergic to dust. As soon as he recovered, he opened it, and he knew he’d found something—for the title page didn’t match the name on the spine. Instead, above an old lithograph of a snake wrapped around an egg, it read:
A Bigennerre’s Guide to Spirittes
Lyfantod flipped through the first few pages, his confidence—and unease—growing by the second. Tingling with excitement, he shut the book with a snap and hurried from the room. When he reached Flynn’s office, he found the door open. The interim professor was sitting at his desk writing with—lo and behold—a quill pen! He looked up when Lyfantod appeared, an inquisitive expression on his face.
“Take me to the Headmaster,” said Lyfantod feverishly, brandishing the book. “I need to talk to the man in charge.”